Breaking Open the Piano: Making Weird Music With Atli Örvarsson

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Atli Örvarsson grew up in the town of Akureyri, with a population of a little less than 18,000 people. Although a small town, Akureyri boasts a vibrant musical culture. It was the perfect incubator for young talent like Örvarsson, who was exposed to classical music, jazz, and rock and roll from a young age.

Örvarsson’s credits include The Pirates of the Caribbean series, the recent Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, and the current NBC hit Chicago Fire. He’s the composer on Sony Pictures’ upcoming thriller The Mortal Instruments, and he lent a hand (and his musical ear) to his mentor Hans Zimmer for the upcoming Man of Steel, helping compose additional music.

We spoke to Örvarsson about his streak of composing music for dark, twisted films, using John Cage inspired techniques to get the creepy sound for a film, and the alchemy between film and music.

The Credits: Let’s talk about your upcoming film, The Mortal Instruments. What kind of musical imprint did you want to create for this dark film?

Örvarsson: It’s a modern day setting, but with a sort of an ancient background. It’s about this group of people who are shadow hunters. They fight demons and evil elements of the underworld, and the idea is that they’ve been around for centuries. So it’s an interesting juxtaposition of modernity and something ancient. We even use some earlier instruments, like the viol, which is the predecessor to the violin and the cello.

What kind of sound does a viol produces?

It’s a string instrument, which is bowed, and it’s actually played without any vibrato, so it’s a very kind of metallic sound to it. And it has that sort of ancient feel to it. It was very prominent during the Renaissance, during the 1400 and 1500s, that was the string instrument. It’s got this really piercing, clean ancient sound to it. It’s gives a real nice subtle color of ancient times.

Mortal Instruments is not the first dark, spooky film you’ve worked on. You’ve scored Angels & Demons, The Fourth Kind, Hansel & Gretel…do you prefer films that have a dark side?

It is happenstance, because I’m really sort of a melodic composer. The danger is obviously being typecast. What I have found really interesting is that in many ways there’s more to explore and finding ways of doing things with a new twist in darkness than in the light. There’s not so much new you can bring to a romantic comedy, and yet there seems to be an endless well of new ideas to come up with for darker things.

Of these darker films, was there one in particular that stood out? I remember seeing the trailer for The Fourth Kind in the theater and thinking, whoa, that’s one alien movie that is not about cuddly extraterrestrials.

You hit the nail on the head, that’s the one that came to my mind. What’s interesting, too, was the budget on that was really low, so I had to be really creative to come up with sounds because it really didn’t have a whole lot of money to pay for the production of the music, there’s no live string orchestra. I remember spending one night in my studio, doing experimental things with my piano, and then processing that electronically and just trying to find new, crazy and weird sounds. I think that exploration got me quite comfortable with my dark side….maybe too much so [laughs].

What kind of new sounds did you find on your piano? Was it just a new way of playing, or were you doing something really weird that made it scarier? 

A little bit of both. I actually played the string directly rather than the key. So the key is an interface with the hammers to hit the string, but if you bypass that mechanism, and bring out your pencils and eraser and anything around you, and starting hitting the strings directly. All kinds of weird things start happening.

So the top of the piano is off?

Yeah, you just open it up and get in there. Usually I use something to hold the sustain pedal down, and then, for example, I take a coin or a pencil to scrape the low strings really fast, while the sustain pedal is being held down, and that makes a very scary sound.

So you’re just standing over the open piano, taking pencils and coins to the strings…

It’s an incredibly ungraceful thing to look at it. John Cage came up with the idea of something called the prepared piano. He would put tacks and superballs in the piano, so when you’d play it, the things would move around inside the piano and change the sound of it. So it’s an idea that’s been around for a while, and I see more people getting right in there and even bowing the piano strings, which is tricky, but usually people use a wire, because you can’t really fit a violin bow in there.

How did you get involved in the film industry? Did you start out wanting to be a composer?

My main instrument as a child and teenager was the trumpet. I grew up in a small town in Iceland, and there was a lot of music going on there. It was a great place to grow up as a musician. One of the good things is that there aren’t too many people, so if you show some promise as a musician, you get to try a lot of different kinds of music. If they need a trumpet player in the brass band in the symphony orchestra, in the theater band, or the big bands that play jazz, you get asked. I got exposed to a lot of different kinds of music.

That sounds like the perfect education for a future film composer.

I sort of fell into film music, I’d always loved it, from Star Wars when I was a kid, spaghetti westerns when I was a teenager, and was really taken by [Ennio] Morricone’s stuff from then on. When I got to Berkelee College of Music, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, and I just happened to try out an introductory course to film music, and I really just fell in love with it. I love the alchemy that happens between music and film, and I felt like that was a pair of shoes that just fit.

Can you speak a bit about the alchemy between music and film? 

I think people would be pretty astonished to watch a film without the score. It’s the music you tend to not really notice, at least about 90% of it, but you really notice it when it’s not there. So it can be a daunting task to start with nothing and try to come up with something that will enhance the film, enhance the emotion. In many ways on an emotional level, music is the third dimension in a movie. It adds that extra layer of feeling and atmosphere and emotion that isn’t there without it. There’s a reason why music keeps getting used in film. There’s no logical reason for it, there’s actually an emotional reason.

What’s your method for scoring a film, how do you begin?

I watch the film a few times and step away from it. I start writing music inspired by the emotion the film gave me. I think that’s really important, to start with proper music, with melodies and themes and something that has integrity on its own, and then you start adapting it to the film. Because if you don’t have strong musical ideas when you’re starting to write what we call the cues, the dangerous is you’ll just end up with wallpaper.

Do you employ any different methods between working on film and working on TV, like you do for Chicago Fire? 

Essentially it’s the same. It’s about storytelling, and blending the picture with that added dimension of emotion. The biggest difference is time. Oftentimes I get an episode on Wednesday and it airs two days later. Maybe 30 minutes of music needs to be done in a few days. I still try to write one or two original pieces of music each week. TV is a different discipline. With film you hope you have time to develop things and think them through, and really try to come up with a proper, decent piece of music for every cue. You do that in television, but you use different methods, it’s in some ways simpler, you use simpler composition methods because time-wise, there’s no way you could do 30 minutes of film music every week.

It seems like you’ve stepped into a bunch of films to offer your talents to another composer, from the upcoming Man of Steel to Frost/Nixon to The Simpsons Movie.  You have a lot of credits on films that you helped out with additional music.

It’s really fun. It’s very freeing, because when I’m not the lead composer on a movie, you don’t have the whole pressure of delivering the project, interfacing with the production, and budget and all these things. You just get to come in and have fun with music, and so it’s usually a blast.